Decorative Art Sales Accounted for a Whopping $825 Million at Auction Last Month. What’s Driving the Boom?

By now, you’ve probably heard enough about how the marquee fine-art sales last month stacked up to pre-pandemic totals. But you may not be aware that there’s an even faster growing segment of the auction market: decorative art and design. 

Decorative art sales generated a total of $825 million at auction last month, up roughly 26 percent from the equivalent total in May 2019. (For comparison, fine-art sales shrunk 1.8 percent over the same two-year period.)

Sotheby’s May design sales in New York and Paris both eclipsed their high estimates, and now Christie’s is doubling down, launching a joint pop-up in the Hamptons with tony design dealer Carpenters Workshop Gallery. And just yesterday, a Phillips design sale in London generated $16.2 million, the highest total for a design auction in company history. 

Maybe there really was something to all that talk about wealthy people paying more attention to their homes after being stuck inside for over a year… . Read on for more about what exactly is driving the trend. 

© Artnet Price Database and Artnet Analytics 2021.

© Midnight Publishing Group Price Database and Midnight Publishing Group Analytics 2021.

So what’s going on in the decorative arts market?

First, let’s clarify what we mean by “decorative arts.” The category is an umbrella term for a number of related but distinct markets, including fine jewelry, watches, design, ceramics, handbags, books and manuscripts, and even snuff boxes. 

Snuff boxes! OK, got it. Why should I care about what’s going on in this umbrella market?

The decorative art auction market is historically much smaller than the fine art auction market. In 2019—the last year things were remotely normal (remember that?)—the former was worth $4.9 billion, according to the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database. By comparison, the fine art market generated $13.2 billion that same year. So here’s why you should care: the decorative art market is ballooning at a rapid pace

How fast are we talking? 

To put things into context, the decorative art market had been stalling for years. The $4.9 billion total in 2019 was up slightly from the year before, but still behind the highs reached in 2014 and 2015. Things started to turn around as the world emerged from lockdown, however—and now, the sector is on track for a banner year.

In the first five months of 2021, decorative art auction sales generated a combined $1.8 billion, 27 percent more than in the equivalent period in 2019. In May 2020, the biggest month of the year to date for decorative art sales, the average price of a lot in the sector sold jumped 49 percent from May 2019. 

Wow! What’s driving this growth?

Sales in every price bracket have risen so far this year compared to the equivalent period in 2019, but—like in the art market—growth is particularly concentrated at the top.

Sales of objects priced at over $10 million grew a gargantuan 122 percent in the first five months of this year, largely due to major sales of jewelry. In May, a pink diamond ring known as the Sakura diamond sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $28.7 million

So there are more rich people willing to shell out for diamonds? 

In a way, yes, it is that simple. The pandemic has further concentrated wealth at the very top, with ever-wealthier people who would otherwise have spent money on luxurious vacations funneling that extra cash into jewelry and design objects. (Demand for diamonds more broadly has also swelled: Signet Jewelers Ltd., for example, reported a 7.8 percent jump in holiday sales in North America, per Bloomberg.)

Is this some kind of honeymoon period with decorative art?

It’s too soon to say. The trajectory is continuing upward, though spending habits may change as more and more people return to their regular rhythms. Diamonds are forever, but diamond auction-sale bonanzas may not be.

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Can the Pandemic Home-Improvement Boom Boost the Market? An Auction Veteran’s New Company Targets Interior Designers

Seasoned art collectors talk about “wallpower,” the quality of paintings that do more than just look good, but that impress, tell a story, and get dinner guests gossiping. Still, plenty of people—even people who buy expensive homes and hire professional interior decorators—have never given a thought to the subject.

Enter Liz Beaman Delman. An American art expert who has spent two decades in the auction house world, split between Christie’s and Sotheby’s, Beaman Delman hopes to fill in the gap with her new advisory business, Above the Sofa.

“I had always fantasized about doing something in the interior design world or adjacent,” she explained in a recent interview with Midnight Publishing Group News. “When I started to investigate what transitioning to that different world would be, it just didn’t make sense at that stage in my career to be a design assistant at a big firm. I asked myself how I can combine all of my expertise but still somehow have a hand in this other area that has really fascinated me. That was the genesis of the idea.”

On more than one occasion, Beaman Delman said, she has observed designers who are so focused on the interiors themselves that the art on the walls becomes something of an afterthought.

“You see a lot of certain types of work being used over and over again,” Beaman Delman argues. “But you can spend the same $25,000 or you can even spend $10,000 and find an exciting, emerging artist who may actually be going somewhere. It’s a little bit like venture investing in the sense that you can buy ten emerging artists and there may be only one that takes off—but isn’t that more interesting than buying something that matches the couch and has no resale value?”

Beaman Delman’s mission, she says, is “empowering the designers to guide their clients to collect.” This includes providing all of her own market research, including a database she maintains tracking galleries around the world and the artists they show. “Obviously, I’m applying my own eye and edit on the selection that I’m presenting, but I’m giving them a tool kit to be able to speak to their clients and to get them to think differently about the art acquisition.”

Though she divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, Beaman Delman says she has been increasingly focused on cities such as Atlanta, Austin, Birmingham, and Nashville. Scores of people have relocated to these areas amid the pandemic, where there’s not necessarily the most robust gallery infrastructure.

Beaman Delman’s hope with Above the Sofa is to raise the game. “From the moment the final mood board for each room has been selected, I get to work putting together the selection so that the artworks can be installed on the same day as the furniture and really have that ‘Wow!’ moment.”

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Are We in for a Basquiat Auction Boom? A Fashion Executive’s Rare Skull Painting Could Fetch Over $50 Million at Christie’s

The season of dueling Basquiats is upon us, with two major paintings up for sale next month—one at Christie’s, the other at Sotheby’s. Together, they may bring in $100 million.

Christie’s will offer In This Case (1983), a large skull on a red background, in its New York evening sale of 21st century art on May 11. The canvas has an unpublished estimate of about $50 million. Two days after that, Versus Medici (1982) will be part of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening auction on May 13, where it is estimated to bring in between $35 million to $50 million.

“It’s going to be Basquiat versus Basquiat,” said Alberto Mugrabi, a private art dealer and collector. “They are both great paintings.”

The works come to market as demand for Basquiat is surging, according to dealers and auction executives. Just last month, Basquiat’s Warrior (1982) fetched $41.8 million at Christie’s Hong Kong, a new record for a Western artist in Asia. Last year, hedge-fund manager Ken Griffin paid more than $100 million for a major 1982 Basquiat owned by newsprint magnate Peter Brant during the pandemic lockdown.

The seller of the skull at Christie’s is Italian businessman Giancarlo Giammetti, a co-founder of the Valentino fashion house, according to a person familiar with the work. It used to hang in Giammetti’s Manhattan apartment, where it was photographed above his dining table in a 2013 Architectural Digest spread. Christie’s declined to comment on the identity of the seller. Giammetti could not be immediately reached for comment.

Installation view of Basquiat's retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Photo: Christie's.

Installation view of Basquiat’s retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Photo: Christie’s.

Skulls are among Basquiat’s most sought-after works. The symbol is part momento mori, an icon of death; part self-portrait; and part memorable logo, harkening back to Basquiat’s origins as a street artist.

Giammetti purchased the painting for $999,500 at Sotheby’s in 2002. It is the last of three large skull canvases Basquiat made in successive years, according to Christie’s.

In This Case was included in the late artist’s blockbuster retrospective in 2018 at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, where the three skulls hung together. The other two are an untitled blue skull from 1982 that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa bought for $110.5 million in 2017, and a blue-and-peach one from 1981 in the collection of the Broad museum in Los Angeles. Maezawa’s work holds Basquiat’s auction record.

Christie’s rival Sotheby’s is hoping to strike gold with the seven-foot-tall Versus Medici, which Basquiat painted soon after an influential trip to Italy in 1981. The painting is among the artist’s “most forceful visual challenges to the Western art establishment, in which the young artist boldly crowns himself—the son of immigrants from Haiti and Puerto Rico—as successor to the artistic throne as established by the masters of the Italian Renaissance,” according to the house.

Art handlers with Basquiat's Versus Medici (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Art handlers with Basquiat’s Versus Medici (1982). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Only two other works by the artist have sold for more than $50 million at auction.

“Everything that relates to the new generation of Black artists, he was the beginning of all this,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art. “Without Basquiat, art history of the past 40 years would have been very different. He’s the most desirable artist at the moment.”

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